Understanding Food Labels

Not so long ago, food choices were limited to what could be grown or raised, hunted or gathered. Today, grocery stores offer seemingly infinite choices in foods, with entire aisles dedicated to breakfast cereals and cases filled with a multitude of different yogurts. Faced with so many choices, how can we decide? Taste matters, of course. But if a healthy diet is your goal, so does nutrition. Food labels are our window into the nutritional value of a given food. Let’s examine what we can learn from food labels and how reading them can help us make smart choices to contribute to a healthy diet.

photo of a refrigerated grocery case containing many choices of yogurt, kefir, milk, and plant-based beverage products.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires food manufacturers to accurately label foods so that consumers can be informed about their contents. There are 5 types of information required by the FDA on every food label, except for fresh produce and seafood1.2:

  1. Statement of identity (what type of food is it?)
  2. Net contents of the package (how much is in there?)
  3. Name and address of manufacturer (where was it produced?)
  4. Ingredients list (what ingredients are included in the food?)
  5. Nutrition information (what is the amount of nutrients included in a serving of food?)

 

Photos of the front and back of a carton of tomato basil soup, with the 5 required types of information required on food labels circled. On the front, the statement of identity ("Tomato Basil Soup") and the net contents (32 FL OZ) are circled. On the back, the nutrition information (Nutrition Facts), ingredient list, and name/address of manufacturer are circled.

Figure 1.12. The 5 required types of information on a food label.

The statement of identity and net contents of the package tell you what type of food you’re purchasing and how much is in the package. The name and address of the manufacturer are important if there’s a food recall due to an outbreak of foodborne illness or other contamination issue. Given the size of our food system and the fact that one manufacturer may make products packaged under multiple brand names, being able to trace a food’s origin is critical.

The last two types of required information—the ingredients list and the nutrition information—are a bit more complex and provide valuable information to consumers, so let’s look more closely at each of these parts of a food label.

Ingredients List

A photo of the ingredients listed on a cornbread mix. It reads "INGREDIENTS: Enriched unbleached flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, ascorbic acid [dough conditioner], niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), sugar, degermed yellow cornmeal, salt, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate), soybean oil, honey powder, natural flavor. CONTAINS: Wheat. May contain milk, eggs, soy and tree nuts.The ingredients list includes all ingredients, listed from most predominant to least predominant (by weight) in the product. For example, in the corn muffin mix label to the right, the most prevalent ingredient is enriched unbleached flour (with ingredients in the flour then listed in parentheses), followed by sugar, cornmeal, salt, and then a few other ingredients.

This order of ingredients comes in handy when judging the nutritional value of a product. For example, in the ingredients list for the corn muffin mix shown at right, it’s interesting to note that it contains more sugar than cornmeal! The ingredients list can also help you determine whether a bread contains more whole grain flour than refined flour. Or, if you’re choosing a breakfast cereal and the first ingredient is sugar, that’s a red flag that it’s more of a dessert than part of a nutritious breakfast.

By law, food manufacturers must also list major allergens, which include milk, egg, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, and soybeans.2 Allergens may be listed in a separate statement, as on the corn muffin mix label, which lists “Contains: Wheat” on the label. Alternatively, allergens can be listed in parentheses within the ingredient list, such as “lecithin (soy).” Some labels include an optional “may contain” or “made in shared equipment with…” statement that lists additional allergens that could be present, not as ingredients in the food, but in trace amounts from equipment contamination. For people with food allergies, having this information clearly and accurately displayed on food packages is vital for their safety.

The Nutrition Facts Panel

If you want to learn about the nutritional value of a food, the Nutrition Facts panel is where you’ll find this information. It’s very useful for comparing products and for identifying foods that will be more or less valuable in meeting your nutritional goals. For example, if you’re trying to watch your intake of added sugar or saturated fat, or you’re trying to incorporate more dietary sources of calcium and vitamin D, the Nutrition Facts panel is a valuable tool. There are 4 main parts of a Nutrition Facts panel, shown in the figure below. The colors are added to highlight different sections of a label; Nutrition Facts are printed in black and white.

A Nutrition Facts panel is shown, with four main parts highlighted and labeled. The serving size information is highlighted in yellow; the calorie information is highlighted in blue, the nutrient amounts section is highlighted in green, and the % Daily Value section is highlighted in purp

Figure 1.13. The four main sections of a Nutrition Facts label, highlighted in color.

1. Serving size information

It’s fitting that serving size information is first on the Nutrition Facts panel, because all of the information that follows is based on it. The serving size of the food is the amount that is customarily eaten at one time, and all of the nutrition information on the label is based on one serving of the food. This section of the label also states the number of servings per container.1

It’s important to note that you might not always eat one serving of a food; sometimes you might eat half of a serving, and sometimes you might eat two or more servings in one sitting. For example, if the label above is for a breakfast cereal, you might easily consume 1 ⅓ cups of cereal for breakfast. If you’re interested in how many calories or nutrients you’re consuming, you would need to double the nutrition values to accurately represent your breakfast, since the serving size is only ⅔ cup.

2. Calorie information

This section simply states the number of calories, or the amount of energy, provided in one serving of the food. Again, if you consume more or less than the serving size, you’ll need to take that into consideration when estimating the calories you’re consuming.

3. Nutrient amounts

The Nutrition Facts panel must list the amounts of these nutrients: total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sugars, added sugars, protein, calcium, vitamin D, iron, and potassium.1

Manufacturers may also choose to add several other optional nutrients or nutritional information: calories from saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat, soluble and insoluble fiber, sugar alcohol, other carbohydrate, and other vitamins and minerals.

4. Percent Daily Values

The Daily Value (DV) is an approximate recommendation for daily intake for a nutrient, developed by the FDA for use on food labels so that consumers can see how much of a nutrient is provided by a serving of a food relative to about how much they need each day. The DV is similar to the RDA or AI, except that because it’s used on food labels, it needs to be a simplified recommendation, with just one value rather than several for different age groups and sex, as found in the DRI.3

Most DVs are based on amounts for people age 4 years through adult, though there are DVs established for infants, toddlers, and pregnant and lactating women, and you’ll see those used on food products specifically developed for those groups. Most of the time, the DV for a nutrient is the highest RDA or AI for the group it’s intended for.

The value printed on the Nutrition Facts panel is the percent DV, which tells you how much one serving of the food contributes towards meeting the daily requirement for that nutrient.

The FDA uses the following definitions for interpreting the %DV on food labels:4

  • 5%DV or less means the food is low in a nutrient.
  • 10% to 19%DV means the food is a “good source” of a nutrient.
  • 20%DV or greater means the food is high in a nutrient.

The DV is not as precise as the RDA, so while the %DV is useful for comparing food products or making quick judgements about the nutritional value of a food, it’s better to use the RDA if you’re looking for your individual nutrient requirements.

Putting the Nutrition Facts panel to work for you

How you use the Nutrition Facts on food labels depends on your dietary goals. If you’re trying to reduce your saturated fat intake, you’ll want to pay close attention to the %DV for saturated fat and try to choose foods with less than 5% DV for saturated fat. If you’re watching your caloric intake, you’ll want to pay attention to the calorie information. Regardless, always start by checking the serving size and comparing it to the amount you usually consume.

As an example of smart label reading, take a look at the two soup labels below. First, think about how much soup you would usually consume. There are two servings per can, but would you eat the entire can or just half of it? Many people would eat the whole can, and if that’s you, you would want to double all of the calorie and nutrient information. Both soups provide 160 calories per one-cup serving, or 320 calories for the entire can.

The image shows photos of 2 generic-looking cans of vegetable soup, one regular (on the left) and one labeled "reduced sodium" (on the right). The Nutrition Facts panel is shown for each soup. They are identical except for sodium. The regular soup has 680 mg sodium (28%DV) and the reduced sodium soup has 340 mg sodium (14%DV).

Figure 1.14. Comparison of Nutrition Facts for a regular vegetable soup, and reduced sodium vegetable soup.

Next, take a look at the sodium. Most Americans consume too much sodium, and this can increase the risk of developing high blood pressure. The regular soup has 680 mg or 28% of the DV for sodium. If you eat the entire can, that becomes 1360 mg or 56% DV. That’s a lot of sodium. You can see how the reduced sodium soup might be the wiser choice here.

VIDEO: “Reading Food Labels,” by Cincinnati Children’s, YouTube (May 9, 2019), 2:56 minutes.

 

What’s That Claim?

In addition to the FDA-required information on food labels, it’s common for them to be peppered with claims about the nutrient content of the food and the purported health benefits of eating it. These claims are marketing tools for food manufacturers, and they’re regulated by the FDA in an effort to ensure that they give the consumer accurate, science-based information about the food. Let’s look at the different types of claims that you’ll find on food packages.

Nutrient Claims

Nutrient claims provide straight-forward information about the level of a nutrient or calories in the food, such as “fat-free,” “low calorie,” or “reduced sodium.” Nutrient claims are regulated by the FDA, with very specific requirements for each one. For example, a food with a “low sodium” claim must have 140 mg of sodium or less per serving, whereas a food with a “reduced sodium” claim must have at least 25 percent less sodium than the standard product. You’ll see claims that a food is “high in,” “rich in,” and “excellent source of” a nutrient, all of which mean that a serving of the food contains 20% DV or more. A “good source of” claim contains 10-19% DV of the nutrient.1

3 photos of food packaging show nutrient claims. From left to right, the first shows a dried cranberry bag with the claim of "'good source of fiber." The second shows a bag of chia seeds that says "excellent source of omega-3." The last is a carton of tomato soup that says "light in sodium."Figure 1.15. Examples of food packaging with nutrient claims. Can you spot them?

Health Claims

Health claims are statements on food packaging that link the food or a component in the food to reducing the risk of a disease. Health claims can be “authorized” or “qualified.” Authorized health claims have stronger scientific evidence to back them than qualified health claims.5

As an example of an authorized health claim, a food that is low in sodium (per the FDA’s definition of less than 140 mg per serving) can include the following claim on their packaging: “Diets low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure, a disease associated with many factors.”1

For an authorized health claim to be approved by the FDA, the agency says “there must be significant scientific agreement (SSA) among qualified experts that the claim is supported by the totality of publicly available scientific evidence for a substance/disease relationship. The SSA standard is intended to be a strong standard that provides a high level of confidence in the validity of the substance/disease relationship.”5 In other words, the FDA requires a great deal of evidence before allowing food manufacturers to claim that their products can reduce the risk of a disease. As is evident in the low sodium claim, they also require careful language, such as “may reduce” (not definitely!) and “a disease associated with many factors” (as in, there are many other factors besides sodium that influence blood pressure, so a low sodium diet isn’t a guaranteed way to prevent high blood pressure).

Qualified health claims have some evidence to support them, but not as much, so there’s less certainty that these claims are true. The FDA reviews the evidence for a qualified claim and determines how it should be worded to convey the level of scientific certainty for it. Here’s an example of a qualified health claim: “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts [such as name of specific nut] as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

Two photos of food packaging with health claims. At left, an image from a box of oatmeal, with a red heart and the words, "As part of a heart healthy diet, the soluble fiber in oatmeal can help reduce cholesterol." At right, a blue rectangle from the front of a cereal box, with the words, "Good source of calcium and vitamin D to help build and maintain strong bones."

Figure 1.16. Examples of food packaging with authorized health claims. Can you spot them?

Structure-Function Claims

Health claims are very specific and precise in their language, and they convey the level of scientific certainty supporting them. In contrast, structure-function claims are intentionally vague statements about nutrients playing some role in health processes. Examples of structure-function claims are “calcium builds strong bones” and “fiber maintains bowel regularity.” Note that these statements make no claims to prevent osteoporosis or treat constipation, because structure-function claims are not allowed to say that a food or nutrient will treat, cure, or prevent any disease.6 They’re allowed by the FDA, but not specifically approved or regulated, as long as their language stays within those rules.

The left-hand photo shows a close-up of a yogurt container. It reads "Supports immune and digestive health." The right-hand photo shows a label on a vitamin D supplement bottle, with the claim, "Supports bone, teeth, muscle, and immune health."

Figure 1.17. Examples of food and supplement packaging with structure-function claims. Can you spot them?

Structure-function claims were originally designed to be used on dietary supplements, but they can also be used on foods, and they’re usually found on foods that are fortified with specific nutrients. They are marketing language, and because nutrients are involved in so many processes, they really don’t mean much.

As you look at food labels, pay attention to what’s shown on the front of the package compared with the back and side of the package. Nutrient and health claims are usually placed strategically on the front of the package, in large, colorful displays with other marketing messages, designed to sell you the product. But for consumers trying to decide which product to buy, you’ll find the most useful information by turning the package around to read the Nutrition Facts panel and ingredients list. These parts of the label may appear more mundane, but if you understand how to read them, you’ll find that they’re rich in information.

Self-Check

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Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Nutrition: Science and Everyday Application by Alice Callahan, PhD, Heather Leonard, MEd, RDN, and Tamberly Powell, MS, RDN is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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